By Linda Lange, Scripps Howard News Service
“Every single minute of every single day you can walk anywhere in Miami and hear talk about what is going to happen when Castro dies,” says tour guide Charles J. Kropke.
This nonstop chatter about Fidel Castro’s regime fills coffee shops, radio waves and meetings in the Cuban business district. Wherever Cuban expats meet, talk of politics and their homeland dominates conversations.
Kropke, an owner of Dragonfly Expeditions, conducts Cuban heritage tours through Little Havana and connecting neighborhoods. He traces developments of the Cuban migration to Miami beginning with the ouster of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. “It began one of the largest migrations in American history. Miami has more than 1 million Cuban Americans now and is the only major American city where over 50 percent of the people are foreign born.”
Our morning of visiting historical sites begins with the Freedom Tower, formerly known as the offices of the Miami News. The yellow-brick building became a processing center for Cuban immigrants. Later it also held medical clinics and classrooms for English lessons. “It’s our Statue of Liberty, our Ellis Island,” he says.
The first wave of Cuban exiles settled in a low-rent district. “They gravitated to little Arts-and-Craft-style bungalows in one of Miami’s first suburbs, Riverside. The area today is called Little Havana. Cuba’s elite came in the first wave. They were the movers and shakers of Cuban society. They thought of themselves as exiles. Their exile has lasted 48 years.”
Subsequent waves of immigrants, including the Freedom Flights from 1965 to 1973, brought people from all tiers of the population. In the 1990s, immigrants known as Marielitos flooded Miami. They arrived via the massive refugee boatlift from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor.
Our understanding of the Cuban American experience takes a new turn as we pull into Palacio de Los Jugos, or Palace of the Juices, at the corner of Flagler and Red Road. “It’s a true local place,” says Kropke as we walk past outdoor displays of tropical fruit and flowers before entering an indoor snack bar. Convivial conversations circulate between shopkeepers and patrons as we move between the grocery shelves and produce bins. Other patrons are selecting entrees from a buffet of fragrant Cuban specialties. A menu board illustrates a dozen different juice drinks and we try to place an order in Spanish.
We hear only Spanish spoken, a fact also true at the next stop. Our conversation with Raymond Puig is a bit one-sided, but easy to follow because he welcomes us with much gusto. He is “king of the Guayabera.” His scepter is a pair of oversize scissors. The Cuban-born tailor left the island more than 40 years ago and established a successful business making the pleated, button-down shirts favored by Cuban men. He employs a fleet of seamstresses at his shop La Casa de las Guayaberas, situated in Opera Plaza on Eighth Street. Circular racks are jam-packed with neatly pressed shirts in assorted colors but most often in white or cream. On the wall we see a photograph of Puig and President Ronald Reagan, both wearing Guayabera shirts.
“Miami is a city that keeps changing. Little Havana is no longer a Cuban neighborhood. Many people have moved off to Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Kendall and Hialeah,” Kropke says. Immigrants from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina have set down roots here. Still, Little Havana remains the symbolic center for the vibrant Cuban community.
Spanish-style architecture dominates Calle Ocho, or 8th Street, the center of Little Havana. To get more of the flavor of the district, we pause at Exquisito, a sidewalk counter cafe, for a thumb-sized cup of ink-black Cuban coffee. We gaze at the window displays of a botanica, a shop selling portions and tools used for white magic rituals, and caress the textiles and woodcarvings at Little Havana To-Go, a gift shop featuring authentic crafts. Placards announce entertainment at Tower Theater, an Art Deco gem with a shiny steel spire. The venue was the first in Miami to add Spanish subtitles and quickly turned into a social meeting place.
The pungent aroma of cigars wafts from the Cuba Tobacco Trading. The shop is owned and operated by two generations of the Peter Bello family. The senior Bello directs us toward glass cases filled with cigars. He grins when showing a letter from cigar lover Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Thanks for the stogies!” the governor writes.
One block away, people are gathered at Maximo Gomez Park, better known as Domino Park. Under a pavilion clad with barrel tiles, they play games of dominoes and chess. Concentration is intense, and players don’t seem to mind our watching. On a park wall, mural art depicts the heads of state that attended the historic Summit of the Americas when it was held in Miami in 1994.
Just around the corner we follow star-shaped plaques embedded in the brick sidewalk. Paseo de las Estrellas, or Walk of the Stars, is the Cuban version of Hollywood’s famous attraction. Here are the names of leading Latino actors, poets, playwrights and musicians.
On 13th Avenue, a series of memorials pays tribute to Cuban leaders active in historical and political struggles. There’s a memorial to Jose Marti, the 19th century revolutionary poet, and an equally impressive bronze bust of Gen. Antonio Maceo, a hero in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain.
At the Brigade 2506 Memorial, a Freedom Torch burns for the martyrs of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. The Island of Cuba Memorial depicts a life-size sculpture of a peasant brandishing a machete. People leave offerings at the base of a large Ceiba tree.
“This street is where all political demonstrations start,” says Kropke, indicating that rallies sometimes draw 40,000-60,000 people. As we drive through the historical district, he points out the restaurant Versailles. It’s the epicenter of Cuban politics and cuisine. “Political candidates have to make an appearance here. It’s a requirement,” he says.
Our final landmark sits on the shores of Biscayne Bay. The Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, also known as the Shrine of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre and Ermita de la Caridad. Cobre is the patroness of Cuba.
The design of the cone-shaped shrine represents many things. The 90-foot high building acts like a lighthouse casting a beacon toward Cuba. It also resembles a cloak that gives shelter to those in need of comfort. A mural around the base depicts the progression of Cuban history from the arrival of the first Spaniards to Castro’s revolution.
Dragonfly Expeditions’ Cuban Heritage Tour is only one of many tours offered in Miami and South Florida. The company also coordinates trips to the Caribbean and northern part of South America. (305-774-9019, 888-9-WANDER)